Saturday, October 30, 2010

Electronic Voting Machine: An innovation from Bharat Electronics Limited (BEL)

Imagine you are designing a product that will be used by several hundred million users within a matter of a few days. What do you think would be your topmost requirement? Usability? Reliability? For Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) designed by Bharart Electronics Limited (BEL), it was “security”. In a country where the election story is never complete without rigging and booth capturing, this is not surprising. Last Wednesday we got an opportunity to listen to the EVM story from Mr. I V Sarma, Director R&D, BEL at the Innovation forum meeting held at IIMB. EVM was first introduced in a Goa state election and rolled out nationally in 2004 General Election.

Security was implemented in EVM at three levels: Technical level (tamper-proof hardware and software design), operational level (security during voting process) and procedural level (throughout the deployment process). For example, the selection of EVMs for polling stations is a random process. Moreover, the machine has no operating system, no network and no external devices connected to it. Imagine a BEL product manager telling this with pride to a Nokia product manager! In spite of this, there were several court cases filed against EVM and it hasn’t lost any yet. For a detailed analysis on security of EVM and its possible loopholes, look at a recent study, “Security analysis of India’s Electronic Voting Machine” by Prasad et. al. presented at the 17th ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security (CCCS’10) this month.

Apart from security, what were the other challenges in developing EVM? Sarma mentioned two more:

  • Simplicity: EVM had to be used for diverse and many illiterate people. Ease of use was important. Hence, the design is kept as close to the ballot paper as possible. Similarly the operating mechanism is similar to the old style. A polling officer presses a button which releases a vote and then the voter presses a button.

  • Reliability: It had to work in adverse weather conditions sometimes without electricity and should be light-weight. In fact, in the last general election the kit had to be carried on a 45km trek to reach a remote destination in J&K valley.

The idea of EVM originated within BEL to automate an internal election. And then Election Commission picked it up. Guess what was the first hurdle it hit? Indian constitution didn’t permit electronic voting. So a bill had to be passed in the parliament!

What kinds of enhancements are planned to EVM? One problem with the current device is that the voter does not have any way of knowing that the vote has been cast. The new version of EVM will have a small paper strip (2 inch x 2 inch) that will fall off giving a visual cue to the voter. EVM is currently being exported to Nepal, Bhutan and Namibia. Patents are filed both inside and outside the country to protect the IPR.

So what is in the next big innovation coming from BEL? One is weapon locating radar and the other is software defined radio.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

What legends learn from gambling: Warren Buffett & the Rules of the Racetrack

I don’t gamble. At least that is what I would have liked to believe. “Nice people don’t gamble” is what I was told in school and at home. But when I look back on various decisions I took – like my investment in Satyam stock or leaving the job to become self-employed – each looked no different from a gamble. What differed were the odds and the stakes. Now I no longer look at gambling as – stuff that only other people do. It is something we do all the time whether we know it or not. What do people learn from real gambling? Here is an interesting tale from the chapter titled “The rules of the racetrack” in Warren Buffett’s biography “Snowball” written by Alice Shroeder.

“Pop, there is just one thing I want. I want you to ask the Library of Congress for every book they have on horse handicapping.” This is what Warren told his dad Howard who was at that time a Congressman living in Washington D. C. Howard cribbed, “Well, don’t you think they’re going to think it’s a little strange if the first thing a new Congressman asks for is all the books on horse handicapping?” Sixteen year old Warren persisted (1946) and got several books from the library. He studied them all and created his models. Tested them on old data he found in old racing forms in North Clark Street in Chicago. Through this process Warren discovered The Rules of the Racetrack:

  1. Nobody ever goes home after the first race.
  2. You don’t have to make it back the way you lost it.

The racetrack counts on people to keep betting until they lose. Couldn’t a good handicapper turn these rules around and win? Warren was to discover the answer first hand soon.

Warren found a new friend to go to racetrack with, Bob Dwyer, his high school golf coach. Together they started going to the racetrack in Charleston, West Virginia. Dwyer taught Warren advanced skills in reading the most important tip sheet, the Daily Racing Form. Warren recalls, “Sometimes you would find a horse where the odds were way, way off from the actual probability. You figure the horse has a ten percent chance of winning but it’s going off at fifteen to one.”

Then one time, Warren went to Charleston by himself. And he lost in the first race. But he didn’t go home. He kept on betting and he kept on losing, until he had lost more than $175 and his pockets were stripped nearly bare. This is what Warren recalls:

“I came back. I went to the Hot Shoppe, and I treated myself to the biggest thing they offered – a giant fudge sundae or something – and there went all the rest of my money. While I ate, I figured out how many newspapers I had to deliver to make up what I had lost (Note: Warren used to deliver Washington Post in the morning). I was going to have to work more than a week to make back the money. And I’d done it for dumb reasons.

You are not supposed to bet every race. I’d committed the worst sin, which is that you get behind and you think you’ve got to break even that day. [That is when I really learned] The first rule is that nobody goes home after the first race, and the second rule is that you don’t have to make it back the same way you lost it. That is so fundamental, you know. It was the last time I ever did anything like that.”

It is time we give some respect to bookies. By the way, which school do they go to?